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Moving Forward

Note: the following article was written by a brother in ministry, Russ Whitfield (@whitness7 on Twitter). Russ pastors Grace Mosaic Church, a sister PCA congregation to Granada, in Washington, DC.  He provided permission to me to share it with you via my blog.  (This entry comes from his contribution found in the book: Heal Us, Emmanuel, available via Amazon.) I have shared it because Russ invites us into his experience and provides us much needed gospel application. Enjoy!

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You may be having a difficult time understanding the reactions of many people of color (and White allies) to the news of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Maybe you are even a little bit frustrated with the emotional response and the cries of injustice against “the system.”

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Russ Whitfield – Grace Mosaic

Perhaps, you’re on the other side of these events. You are angry, heartbroken, and feeling hopeless because you can’t help but see injustice every time one of these all-too-familiar scenarios appears in news headlines. Either way, if you identify as a Christian, you have been called to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, and a light in this current darkness. It is imperative that you work through this distinctly Christian calling with wisdom, courage, and a mind to new obedience. The love of God constrains you. The grace of God teaches you. The Spirit of God empowers you to live an altogether different kind of life in light of the new age that has dawned in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The issues at hand deeply affect the lives of real people within your local church and real people outside of your local church whom you have been called to love faithfully. This is to say that our engagement or disengagement with these issues will shape the dynamics of our life together, along with our missionary encounter with the world. On these issues, our local churches will either testify to the glory of the risen Christ through mutual love and humble repentance, or we will obscure the glory of the risen Christ through hardness of heart and indifference.

One thing, however, must be made absolutely clear: passivity has never been a viable Christian response to divisive and destructive social dynamics, especially within the church. Most of us are already convinced of this. But we feel like we’re stuck. We’re unsure of how to participate in bringing the healing that is needed.

STORY AS GUIDE
So how might we begin to proactively engage these issues? How can we begin to chart a course forward? I would invite you to consider the theme of story as a guiding paradigm for progress. All sides in this racial struggle tend to live within their own separate stories. These cultural narratives predetermine who our friends should be, who we can trust, and how we should relate to the world. These cultural narratives encourage us to find our deepest identities and alliances within our own ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. However, I would propose that if we are to move forward together, then we must situate these tensions, our community, and our very lives within the same story—the story of God. No matter what truths may be found within these smaller cultural stories, we must give the greatest weight and the final say in our lives to God’s story. To put it another way, the story of God must be our “true north,” our greatest orienting factor. The story of God must dispel the cultural myths in which we have been living for far too long.

I’m intentionally resisting the typical “to-do” list, for real problems are rarely solved by checking the boxes. Rather, I’m proposing what I think will be a fruitful trajectory of thought as we try to move forward in mutual love and understanding. Admittedly, it takes much prayerful, humble, and communal reflection to figure out what this might look like in your context. The specifics will take different shape in different places. However, I would propose that if we are to be built up together in love (Eph. 4:16), then we must stay attuned to God’s macro-level narrative for perspective.

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Grace Mosaic at worship

Let’s start with some important ideas. Each tragic, racialized event tends to take on a life that is much bigger than itself. Each of these events tap into a broader, more tragic, and more painful story for people of color. If this does not register for you, then the effect of all your preaching, Scripture quoting, and #praying tweets will be muted, at best. Please understand that every act of racial injustice, every episode of racism and race-based mistreatment takes on a symbolic status that brings to mind an entire network of historic injustices, sufferings, and the dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color. In the minds of many Black people, each racialized event serves as a heart-rending cipher for chattel slavery, Jim Crow, historic church bombings, Klan terrorism, redlining, and many other wounds received personally, and by living family members of former generations. Each event reads like another chapter in America’s running commentary on my Blackness—my worth, my status, my place in society—and it’s not a hopeful picture.

At one time, I did ministry in an affluent area in another part of the country, and I was often invited to large parties that were held in the beautiful homes of friends and church members. I was usually the only person of color in the place, except for “the help,” of course. On more than one occasion, a fellow party-goer would come up to me and put their trash or empty glass on my plate, assuming I was “the help.” I was clearly not expected to be in attendance as an equal or a friend. On another occasion, as I stood at the front of the house chatting with a friend and taking in the beautiful weather, a fellow party-goer tossed their car keys to me upon their arrival, assuming that I was the valet. Why did he toss the keys to me rather than my White friend? On each of these occasions, I heard America’s commentary clearly: “We’ve already assigned a social role for people who look like you, and that role is beneath us.”

Based on your current life situation, these events can carry slightly different, but equally painful messages. If I’m a Black achiever, I get the message that no matter how many letters I have behind my name (MDiv, PhD, JD), no matter how much money I have in the bank, no matter what gifts, talents, or job titles I hold, I will forever and always be subservient, even expendable. The dark clouds of stereotype, racialization, and essentialism will never lift.

I will never be able to walk through the world with the freedom and security of my White counterparts. The media stereotypes, fear-filled glances of passersby, and constant pressures to prove my virtue, decency, and value are a regular reminder that I don’t get the benefit of the doubt so I must work that much harder to diffuse the doubts and fears. In certain situations, it could mean the difference between life and death. Each tragic episode tells me that I will be on the social treadmill indefinitely: The reality of motion with the illusion of progress.

If I’m a Black non-achiever, I get the message that if I ever entertained even the smallest notion of rising from my current situation, I should probably just forget about it. It’s not worth the effort. I’m stuck and might as well stay put. If I try to rise, anyone with cultural power can put me back in my place of subjugation without any repercussions. Each racialized incident sounds like a ringing confirmation of the nihilistic chorus of voices that continually dance in my head. Sadly, many succumb to this bleak outlook.

If at this point you want to say, “Well just follow the law, and you don’t have to worry about these things happening. You can take responsibility for your actions—look at Barack Obama!” I understand how this makes sense to you, and it is true that personal responsibility must be taken, but try to consider the countless Emmett Tills of America (and if you don’t know who Emmett Till is—Google him!) For every Barack Obama, there have been thousands of Emmett Tills in American history. In addition, each incident is a reminder of the flood of personal experiences of racism and injustice that the particular individual has endured. Like that time when I was called a racial slur and that time when people expressed shock at my ability to speak “the king’s English.” Add in that day when my college friends suggested that I was granted acceptance because of “affirmative action” rather than personal merit (because I could not possibly have earned it…being Black and all). We could easily produce dozens of these microaggressions that have rubbed our souls raw through repeated abrasion.

None of these incidents that I or anyone go through happen in an emotional or historical vacuum. God made us as emotive, storied people, it’s a fact of our anthropological hardwiring. So, often, when Black people experience America’s commentary, it is an experience similar to the real, lived pain of seeing a mangled car on the roadside after having lost a dear loved one in an auto accident. Viewing that singular image on the side of the road instantly creates a tidal wave of emotions. Then, after this wave hits you, the rip tide of grief carries you out into the sea of anguish. You remember first hearing the news of the loss. You remember watching your surrounding loved ones burst into tears. You remember the black suits and dresses at the wake. You remember the roses being thrown on the coffin as the undertaker prepared to lower your loved one six feet into the ground.

In a similar way, African Americans are reintroduced to a grief, pain, and sense of loss every time one of these tragedies occurs, and inasmuch as you refuse to acknowledge this and mourn with the mourner (Rom. 12:15), you exacerbate the pain and alienation. You stall healing and, sometimes, inflict deeper wounds.

We must realize that the optics of these events matter. Regardless of the particulars, the overriding truth, the loudest voice heard by African Americans is that another Black person’s life has been extinguished because Black lives are invested with less value.

If you are always down in the weeds arguing “the facts,” you will likely be harsh and insensitive. The worst part about this is that you may be “right” with regard to technicalities, but you will not be right with regard to Christian love. You may need to consider holding your tongue in certain moments. Many of the things that we think in our minds are not beneficial for public consumption (beware your Facebook and Twitter rants).

The question is not so simple as to ask, “Do the details of this particular case harmonize with the American justice system?” The bigger question is, “Does the American justice system harmonize with the true justice of God in this particular situation?” To conflate the American justice system with the true justice of God is naive and misguided. We have to acknowledge that the American justice system is failing Black people, brown people, White people, and law enforcement officers at any point where the American justice system departs from the principles of eternal justice. I’m not suggesting that we could or should pursue a theocracy in America. But what I am suggesting is that there must be an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our system and, at the very least, a fight to rid the American justice system of its glaring inadequacies, insofar as we are able to participate in this labor.

But it is also important for us to remember a number of other important facts as we aim to move forward.

First, there is a beautiful history of White people entering into solidarity and seeking justice for all. They have used their social, educational, and financial privileges to work for justice. People of color should encourage them and receive them as family and allies in this worthy struggle.

Second, there are many genuine, kind-hearted, White people who are doing their best to make sense of things. They do not see any injustice or why these incidents would warrant such strong reactions. They are honestly trying to work through it all. Let grace and the Golden Rule be your guide in dialogue. Try to give the same space and grace that you would need to see things from their angle, given their life experiences. If they ask you questions and the answers seem painfully obvious to you, don’t assume or project malicious intent, lest you be guilty of the same kind of thinking that contributed to these tragedies in the first place.

Third, there will always be people who see emotional responses of pain and frustration in such situations as “race-baiting,” “excuses,” or “playing the race card.” There will be trolls on the comment sections of digital newspapers and blogs that spew unspeakably awful, hateful things. I would simply encourage you to spend your emotional energies on your local context with real people, building real relationships of trust and honesty. Staying at the national level to the neglect of the local level will likely tend toward hopelessness and despair. Conversely, the small victories that happen around the kitchen table and in the neighborhood, born of prayer, love, and perseverance, will bless you more than you know. Celebrate this good fruit.

What’s even more important than these practical pieces of advice is the more central need that we have to share the same overarching narrative. This is the truth: We need each other if we are going to break out of the dehumanizing narratives under which we each live. If there is any truth to the notion that we are deeply affected by the narratives under which we live, then we are confronted with a question: What does a narrative of untimely death, violence, criminalization, racialization, and inferiority do to a people group? When this historical narrative of subhumanity and expendability seems to be confirmed time and again, what happens to its beleaguered characters?

It has been said before that racism and the racialization of American culture is bad, not just for people of color, but for White people as well.[1] It is not true nor healthy for people of color to live under the narrative of inferiority and dehumanization. In the same way, it is not true nor healthy for White people to live under the narrative of superiority and suprahumanization. You are in a dangerous and unhealthy position when your race, ethnicity, biology, and overall way of life is canonized and made to be anthropological holy writ. Adherence to this social orthodoxy will cloud your mind with a soul-stifling pride, which God opposes (James 4:6). No one people group should be so cast down below the rest, and no one people group should be so exalted above the rest—neither of these outlooks is a healthy way to be human. The conflicts we are witnessing result from the ways in which we have all lived out of these lesser narratives, allowing these mythologies to govern our lives and ruin our relationships.

However, there is a way in which all people can simultaneously acknowledge their lowliness, fallibility, and the vulnerability of their situation—but also the beauty, glory, and hope for their situation. This is the story of the Gospel, and it is this story that we must share together if we are to make progress in mutual love and understanding.

GOD’S STORY
According to God’s story, every human being was designed for glory and dignity in connection with God and the people around him or her. Every human being surrendered his or her glory in walking away from God. But the hope that God gives is that his story is all about affirming these twin truths: You and I are simultaneously sinners, yet accepted in the Beloved by grace alone through faith alone. We are ruined but rescued, awful but adopted, devious but delivered. God’s story tells us that brokenness is not the sole proprietorship of any one ethnic group, and by God’s grace, glory is not the sole inheritance of any one ethnic group. This is God’s commentary on our shared identity in Christ; and it’s infinitely better than America’s commentary.

This story alone sets the stage for fruitful, healthy, restorative dialogue and true progress. This story tells me that my identity rests, not on being right, but on being loved. I am free to be wrong, to learn, and to change as I live in community with the other. I am free to acknowledge that my mind needs to be renewed, and that this renewal is possible. If what the Bible says about me is anywhere near the truth, then humility, teachability, and grace must govern the way I move forward.

Don’t politicize this issue, gospelize it. The Gospel is the only story big enough to swallow up the grief of a ruined humanity, overcoming that ruin with the glory of a renewed humanity. Build this into your local church through every means available—pulpit, programming, community groups, and neighborhood gatherings. Explore the implications of God’s story for the current racial conflicts that we are facing. In what ways do you need to embrace difficult changes personally and corporately? How does God’s story encourage me to drop my defenses? Who should I be inviting to my dinner table in light of God’s story? How should we rethink the power-dynamics of our church or organization in light of a glorious God who humbles himself in love in order to lift the other?

The story of God answers these questions and many more with life-giving and life-changing direction. But one thing is for sure, if you bury your head in the sand on important issues like these, your witness will be blunted and your missionary encounter with the world will ebb over time as America grows more diverse.

You have an opportunity to speak dignity over the disenfranchised—did not Christ do this for you (1 Pet. 2:9)? You have an opportunity to proclaim words that invite humility and gracious acceptance—did not Christ proclaim these words over you (1 Pet. 5:5)? You have an opportunity to participate in the formation of a cross-cultural community—is this not the community that God has already determined to bring to completion (Rev. 7:9)? In God’s story, the poor are made rich because the rich One was made poor (2 Cor. 8–9). In God’s story, the weak are made strong because the Almighty was pleased to enter into our weakness (Rom. 5:6, Phil. 2:5ff).

In God’s story, there is hope for the hopeless, joy for the joyless, and power for the powerless. Christ, the King, will not suffer the status quo injustice and tragedy of this world to remain in place forever. But my question for you is this: Are you going to embrace your role as a participant in God’s story of renewal? In Christ, we have an entire treasury of resources for living up into this bigger, more meaningful, and more beautiful story. I would invite you to reimagine your relationships in light of this story. Reimagine the final chapter of this story, allowing that vision to shape your life and relationships in the present. If you do, the mile markers on the side of the road will reveal that you are actually making progress in the journey toward racial healing and social flourishing. This story, shared among us, is our hopeful way forward.

[1] Peggy McIntosh. “White privilege.” Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, (1998): 94–105.

Preserving Life

Screenshot 2020-06-02 17.44.04This has been a tough week. It has been tough because we feel raw and exposed, weak and at a loss. In seeing the sins of others and deep injustice in our world, our hearts are revealed as well.  Hopefully, this time leads each of us to repentance.  It has for me again and again.  There is no room for pride here. Only a humble seeking of God for life and for forgiveness.  Here’s why.

First, the gospel reveals that the whole world is under the power of sin.  These moments should grieve us but not surprise us. Our entire world has the contagion of sin. Years ago, I would not have included myself in the problem of racism. It was through an African American pastor who befriended me that God revealed my part.  His name was Bob, and Bob shared with me his life story. He explained what it was like to start a trucking business as a black man. Securing a business loan was near impossible. His business merited the loan for sure. He had been successful, but he was denied because of his skin color. This was the small tip of an immense iceberg. His story was filled with disadvantage and discrimination. His entire life had been lived resisting a force like gravity constantly pulling him and keeping him down.  It was always there working against him. His story seemed unbelievable to me because I did not live in his world. I assumed his world was the same as mine. It was not.

glassesHere’s the thing. Bob never blamed me for being born into a different world. No, he had become a Christian pastor by the time I met him. I could only see the love of Jesus in him. I was ashamed when I heard Bob’s story not because I didn’t know, but because I never sought to know and understand.  It was thinking about the incarnation that brought me to repentance. Jesus entered into our world, and shared our story so that he might bring life. I began to wonder what it might be like to reflect the love of Jesus and enter the world of others. What would it look like to build new friendships, and to seek to understand? How would it be if all of us did this?

Someone said that theology is geography.  What we believe will determine where we stand. I believe it will also determine those we stand with.  I find that when we stand with the poor and those that are oppressed and distressed that we are standing with Jesus because that is where Jesus is.  I think this is a time when we are called to do that.

handsSecond, the gospel calls us to oppose racial prejudice. My friend caused me to reread the gospel. It was amazing how often the gospel spoke to this deep sin of the human heart.  Because “there is no distinction…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23) there is no room for pride. As we like to say, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. None of us are worthy of God’s grace. No racial group has an advantage. Instead, God gives his love freely. Our temptation (read: mine) is to feel pretty good about ourselves, and to see other people, especially those different from ourselves, as on the other side of a great gulf. There is grace for us, but not so much for “them.”  But, the gospel speaks this word of truth to us all. None of us have a privileged place before God. God shows no favoritism.

Grace means that we must guard against our own pride and also against the judgment of others because “we do the same things.” (Romans 2:1) Yes, you may find yourself standing in judgment of racists at this time.  We can always find someone we can judge.

The good news is that the gospel from the beginning has united Jews and Gentiles, people of different cultures and socioeconomic groups, and men and women. Jesus has torn down the dividing wall of separation that human beings seem to always be rebuilding. Prejudice based on race has been endemic in our world. There is no place for racism in the life of the gospel.  Our refusal to see this is a denial of our need to be redeemed through the grace of Jesus. It is a denial of what Jesus has done.

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Third, the gospel requires that we do all we can to preserve life. Our church’s larger catechism (used to instruct us in the faith) reminds us that we are required by God’s law to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any… (See text below) This is our high calling. This means we don’t use our words to incite violence. We protect others with our words and actions. We guard even our thoughts and purposes.  The catechism goes on to say that we avoid sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge as well as provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life.

Yes, it is not enough to remain silent. We are to do all that we can to preserve life, to guard against those practices that put life in danger. We are to value all people as made in the image of God, seeking God’s justice for each individual.

The catechism speaks a hard truth to us.  We must be careful not to add more violence to the mix, but to trust in the power of God’s love in word and deed. This means being proactive not reactive.

worldFinally, the gospel reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Scripture teaches that our world is under the control of what it calls “principalities and powers.” (Ephesians 6:12) What are these?  Remember my friend Bob? He didn’t simply encounter people that stifled his business-growth. He found himself living as part of a system, a way of doing life and viewing our world, that perpetuated oppression for some, and opportunity for others. For sure, people keep the system going, but it is larger than any person, political party or nation.  It is these powers that keep us trapped in cycles of violence and oppression. Each one of us shares in that.

This is what ultimately led Bob to Jesus. He could see in Jesus the only hope for our world. How so?  First, Jesus speaks the truth about our condition.  Scripture is honest about the need of every person to receive forgiveness and life. In the gospel, Bob found himself no different than any other human being. Second, Jesus opened the way for our reconciliation with God and with each other. Though born into the power structure of our world, Jesus refused to obey its direction in the way he treated minorities and women, and those of different cultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. In this, Bob knew Jesus loved and welcomed him into his kingdom. Third, Jesus established an alternate kingdom that is alive and at work in our world.  It is that kingdom we become part of when we come to faith in him. Bob wanted to share in what Jesus is doing to change our world.  We can choose by the power of the Spirit of God to do as Jesus did. We can treat each person with dignity and respect and without partiality.

crosspicThrough the love of Jesus, I met Bob and we became more than friends. We knew we were brothers. His friendship gave me a whole new outlook on the world, and the ability to comprehend what is “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, and that there was room for me. It also led me to repentance, to see how wrong it was not to enter into the stories of others, not to protect others. I had been comfortable with distance instead of motivated by God’s love.  This is a complacency and comfort that God is constantly leading me away from.  I hope he is doing the same with you.

That’s why I am asking at this time: what can we do to protect others?  How can we build friendships that will foster understanding and open the way for gospel transformation?  Let us pray and work for this together. When the darkness seems the deepest, light seems the brightest.  Let your light shine before all that people may glorify the Father in heaven.

I hope you will do what you can as an individual to protect life and oppose oppression in our city and our world.  I’m going to ask our leadership to consider how we as a church can better engage in our city going forward. I’d love to hear your ideas. Please reach out to me if you have any input for our conversation.  I ask your prayer for our city, each other, and for our efforts together in the future.

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From the Westminster Larger Catechism

The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent. Answer to Q. 136 in the Westminster Larger Catechism

The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life. Answer to Q. 137 in the Westminster Larger Catechism

Stuck

Have you ever been stuck? Stranded and made to wait? As life is being reduced to house and home, many of us are feeling this. I remember trying to explain to my father, who was 92 at the time, that he would no longer be able to drive his car. He could not accept his new limitation. So much so that he took his car out to drive anyway. None of us want to feel stranded, either with a broken-down car beside the road or in the airport with a cancelled flight.

While reading the books of Acts, these words didn’t catch my attention. It was only later during the process of a deeper study that it all sunk in. Here are the words:

When two years had elapsed… Acts 24:26

Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem. False charges were leveled against him. He endured a plot to take his life and was shuffled around from prison to prison, and forced to stand before the authorities more than once. As his experience is being described to us, those words appear. Two years passed. Just like that. Time gone. Life missed. Talk about being stuck!

For Paul, this was not the first time. He’d been in prison more than once prior to this moment. How would he deal with this? How do we? That question is important for me this week because I was in Peru with my two sons on an adventure we have been talking about for years. We planned to hike the Inca trail together, that beautiful ancient path built by the Incas over 500 years ago. We did the training in preparation. At one point, the trail rises over 14,000ft. I wasn’t looking forward to that part but cherished the opportunity to be with my sons. We had the necessary gear. The night before we were to depart our guide explained the ins and outs, just what we should expect during the 4 day trek. We went to bed expectant and excited.

Where we were headed!

We woke up to find our trek cancelled and what was worse, the country would be closed later that day. No flights would be allowed. Everyone would be confined to their homes and quarters. The decision was made over night. During the last few hours of freedom, we took a taxi to the airport hoping to change our flights and get home before the lockdown. Everyone else had the same idea. It was hopeless. So, we returned to our hotel to receive the news that we might be able to leave on April 1st. Maybe. We were stranded. Completely stuck. (I wish I were making this up, but I’m afraid not!)

Cusco…where we are now!

How could Paul endure what seemed like a completely unnecessary confinement? He explains what he has learned. These words were written from prison in Rome.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:10-13

First, he knows the support of dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Though he is in confinement he is loved and supported by many. This letter is one he is writing to a church that has reached out to him in love. None of us can live life alone. And, times of stress increase our need for each other. During these days stranded in Cusco, I have had the encouragement of many. I haven’t felt alone. I am so grateful to those that are praying, to those that have tried to help us get home, and most of all for loving friendship in Christ.

I hope this challenges all of us to pick up the phone. Make the call. Send the message. Remind people they are not alone in this. This moment will make us feel more isolated. Let’s seize the opportunity to make connections to let people know they are not alone. You also need to hear the voices of others (and see their faces, even from a distance).

Second, Paul has used these moments to grow his dependence on Christ. He has discovered his weakness and in the process found the strength that God provides. That is his secret. When he is weak, he is strong because then he is resting in Christ. How can we get there? It is not automatic. These times can frighten us or make us bitter or angry. Paul learned contentment by looking to Christ. In his letter, you will not smell even a whiff of complaint, but only gratitude to God. This is the most positive of all of his letters. The message is all joy.

Paul got to the joy of contentment through a deep trust in the love of God. That is what sustains me. It is there where circumstances matter less than the state of our communion with God. Don’t get me wrong. I want to be home, home yesterday. (Two years would be unthinkable! Even waiting until April is tough.) But, God is good and I trust him.

Are you feeling stuck, stranded where you are? How can you use this moment to deepen your trust in the God that has loved you in Christ? How can you learn the secret of being content in any and every situation?

Add Grace. Rinse. Repeat.

We are living in a unique moment. Likely, you are hearing a variety of responses to the Coronavirus. Some people are panicky and afraid, and are withdrawing for safety. Others are going on as if nothing is happening. Between those views there is a whole spectrum of belief and behavior. What are we to do with that? Where should we/you stand? Should you attend public events or visit the grocery store? Or, should you remain home? How should you view those that respond in a way different from you?

Paul, when he wrote the Christians in Rome, had the challenge of confronting an issue that divided Christians. The matter was debatable and not something scripture speaks to. Indeed, he explained that such matters are matters of faith. People are bound to disagree. The first thing we recognize in Paul’s letter is that that is okay. We are all at different places in our lives, our health, and our faith. How we respond will be different. The nature of grace is to allow for this. Rather than being critical of others and judging others for their perspective, he challenged the believers to make their decision based on faith and not on fear or pressure from others. This is more difficult than it sounds. It doesn’t mean disregarding science or the advice of others. It means asking God for wisdom, listening to others who can inform you, and then making a decision by faith. It means trusting God to work through that process, and taking the time to work and pray it through.

Even then, we will come out in different places. That is okay. It is more than okay. This is what it means to live in a community of grace. It means that we love one another even when we disagree. It means we trust that God is working in the lives of others and not only in our lives. It means we support and encourage each other the whole way through. There are no “I told you sos” or “I was right all along.” There is only grace. Why? All of us are fallible. None of us can see everything. We all see through a glass dimly. Each of us needs grace.

This is why we pray and rest in Jesus. Years ago while pastoring in New Jersey, I became involved in a ministry to serve patients with HIV. Today, we know a lot about HIV, but in the late 1980s it was surrounded by fear and suspicion. The state I was living in had moved nearly all patients with HIV into one hospital. People were so frightened at this point and so little was known about transmission that family members refused to visit their loved-ones. In the middle of this crisis, a grace-filled Christian woman began to invite people to visit this hospital, to befriend the patients and to provide spiritual care. I signed up and began to visit weekly with a small team of others. Each week we would bring in birthday cakes and make a circuit of the patient rooms to sing to them and pray for them.

I tell you this not so that you might think I am a hero. I’m not. Everyone on the team had fears. I remember one night taking some of the patients outside in wheelchairs just so they could get out of their rooms. We gathered in a circle and talked about life, about what they were afraid of (they were desperately afraid of infecting us) and about what it means to trust God in the midst of such deep uncertainty. As we were talking, mosquitoes descended on us all. We had no idea if mosquitos could be carriers of the disease. Everyone expressed their fears of what was at that time unknown, me included. So, why was I there?

When asked to be part of the team, I knew I needed to pray it through. Not to disregard the science, but to make a decision, whatever it was, based on faith. Is this a place God was calling me to be? If so, how can I be wise and also be faithful in it? Working that through with God was much more difficult than making a knee-jerk reaction in that moment.

And, this is where we are today. We are at the place were we need to continually add grace, to love others with different opinions and at the same time make our decisions by faith. We are also at the place where we need to pray through everything, to take nothing for granted. The good news is that God promises to give us wisdom when we seek him!

Shaken But Not Forsaken

Dear Granada family,

When the world felt like it was coming apart at the seams, Martin Luther found refuge in the Lord.  The words of Psalm 46 seemed particularly comforting to him:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea… Psalm 46:1-2

Indeed, each day seemed to bring unprecedented changes. In the process, his own life was put in danger. He had every reason to be afraid, but far larger than his fears was the Lord’s presence. Even when the earth trembled and life felt uncertain, God’s power and presence gave him peace and joy.

Luther had this experience more than 500 years ago and his moment gave birth to a renewed faith in God that swept the world. Israel also experienced the faithfulness of God, when Psalm 46 was recorded, more than 1,500 years before Luther.  This is our moment to rest in our sovereign God. How can we do that?

First, we can, by reading scripture and turning to the Lord, join the long train of believers that rediscovered God’s faithful love.  This is an opportunity for prayer and worship. As the days seem to grow darker, even more we need the light of Jesus, a light that cannot be extinguished.  His light drives out fear and gives us a place to stand. We have always been vulnerable but now we feel it more acutely. Let this time be one of spiritual renewal. Let us pray for one another and for those most affected medically and economically.

Second, let’s find ways to serve and love. From the beginning, Christians have responded to crises by stepping toward people with acts of mercy. They have cared for the sick, comforted the hurting, and supported the most vulnerable. One great hymn reminds us that “with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.” In the process, God will call a few of us to make huge sacrifices.  Our medical professionals are on the front lines as well as many of those in the service sector. Let’s pray for them and their safety. 

Jesus stepped toward those that were hurting and sick. All of us can find ways to serve. Social distancing will create loneliness and a sense of isolation for many. We can work to provide connection by spending time on the phone, letting others know they are not alone in this.  Praying over the phone with someone else is more than a comfort.  It helps to bridge the distance between you and also invites the Spirit of God to join you in your prayers.  Let’s reach out to those in our small groups and classes for prayer.

We can also deliver food and supplies to those that need to be in isolation. Care packages of groceries accompanied by notes of encouragement provide a lifeline to those worried about having what they will need. We’d love to know if you are willing to assist in this way so that Granada can have a team of helpers available.

Our diaconal resources will be available to those overwhelmed by the changes in the economy. I hope you will not be afraid to ask for help if you need it and to offer help if you have to share.  In this way, you show forth the mercy and grace of Jesus.

Martin Luther found hope in God. He found God faithful to his promises. He documented his experience in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” One stanza reminds us:

Did we in our own strength confide,

Our striving would be losing;

Were not the right Man on our side,

The Man of God’s own choosing.

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is he;

Lord Sabaoth is his name,

From age to age the same,

And He must win the battle.

Luther learned that what was happening to him was also a spiritual battle. It was a time when he knew he had to lean deeply on the Lord’s power and seek the Lord’s presence. That is our moment as well. 

With love in Christ,

Worth

PS Yes, we will be meeting for worship this weekend. We will keep you abreast of our schedule as things progress.  Do reach out to us if we can support you in any way. Our hotline number is: 305.444.5376.  One of our elders, pastors or deacons will be available and will take your call. Do reach out to us.

Holding Firm

Do we stay in Miami? Should we try to get as far away as possible? Will we have anything left when the storm hits? I’ve had scores of conversations like this in the last four days. Storms bring uncertainty, fear, and feelings of powerlessness. As human beings, we don’t like feeling vulnerable, or like we are losing control. We become anxious, unsettled. It is natural. Even our golden-doodle senses something is wrong. She’s been agitated for days.

In the ancient world, storms were signs of chaos, the fact that human beings ultimately are helpless. The wind and the waves were greatly feared. There was nothing that could be done in the face of the storm. We know this. That’s the explanation for the scores of times you’ve checked the weather forecast and looked at the storm track this week. Where is it going? How strong is it now?

This being true about storms, I am amazed at how often Jesus led his disciples into situations where they would encounter them. Why purposely put them in harm’s way? Why cause them to doubt your love? But, this is exactly what Jesus did. At one point, after He sent them across the Sea of Galilee during a gale that put their lives at risk, they said to him:

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? Mark 4:38ESV

Perhaps, you have said something like this to Jesus: “Lord, do you care about us at all?” That is how we feel. What are we to do with these feelings?

Danforth anchor

Yesterday, Sandy and I found a restaurant that remained open. It was filled to capacity. We managed to get the last two seats in the house because a couple was willing to share their table.  The man was sunburned and tired. He’d been forced to remove their large boat from the slip they normally kept it in. Where could they take it? No spaces were available. He explained how he motored his boat into safe water. Then he set his anchor: one large Danforth (that’s a breed of anchor) weighing 90lbs with a run of 300 feet of heavy chain. The other end of the chain was fastened deep in the hull of the boat. Then he put out a second anchor almost as large as that one, to provide more security and added stability. He said, “Let the wind blow. I’m anchored. The boat might be pulled apart, but the anchor will be there, holding ground.” That really is our story.

Our lives will be as secure as the place where we are anchored.

That night as the storm threatened their boat and as they became afraid, Jesus was taking a nap. We are told:

…he [Jesus] was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. Mark 4:38ESV

Jesus slept while the storm raged because He is the Lord of the storm. He is our creator God. The wind and the waves are his. Think of an immense hurricane coming and Jesus using the time to catch up on sleep! When the disciples woke him up with their fears, we are told that he:

…rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Mark 4:39ESV

He spoke to the storm as a parent tells a child to calm down. The wind ceased blowing and there was great calm. What a moment this must have been for the disciples to see, to discover the identity of Jesus. He is Lord. What can they say at a moment like this?

And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him.” Mark 4:41ESV

That is who Jesus is. The Master of all of this. It’s not chaos, or uncontrolable. Now, Jesus doesn’t promise that nothing bad will ever happen to them. He doesn’t tell them that this will be the last of the storms they will see. But now, they know him. They know they have a secure place to anchor their lives. A place to look when they feel afraid, uncertain, and out of control. They can look to Jesus. This is why Jesus came and what He came to do: to save us from perishing.

I want to go see that man’s boat after the storm. But even more, I rejoice to see people whose lives are anchored to Christ when the storms come, to see the security and peace that Jesus provides. That is something to behold. Perhaps, that is the gift in the feelings of vulnerability that we have experienced this week. It is an opportunity to admit that life ultimately is beyond us, and to turn to Jesus.

So, I’ve set my anchor. I may fall apart, but the anchor will still be there holding ground.

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Harvey – How to Help

Lester Holt doing an interview from the neighborhood of former Granada members.

I was so pleased to hear that people part of our Granada family (former members and friends) who live in the area affected by Hurricane Harvey are safe. Some were evacuated by boat from flooded neighborhoods.  Others found their way to high ground before the waters rose. Yes, search and rescue efforts continue. In some areas, the rain has not stopped. In others, the flood waters have not reached their peak.

A number of sister churches have had their buildings flooded. Many of the members of these congregations have homes under water. The situation remains dire.  But, the good news is that many people are rallying to help. Even before Harvey made landfall we had a disaster relief team on site.  Provisions and resources were being moved into position to resource the team and aid in the recovery.

In Miami, we live with the legacy of destruction from hurricanes. We know the danger. We also understand the long-term process of rebuilding a house and rebuilding lives. That’s why we want to get involved. We want to help in practical ways. How can you help?

Right now. 1.  Pray.  Pray for the safety of the people in harm’s way. Pray for the team on site. Pray for the affected churches and people in those communities.  Pray for the needed resources to help them begin to respond.  2. Give.  Use the link below to give directly to the work we and our sister churches are doing in those communities.  We know the people leading the effort and have confidence in them. They are there for no other reason than to love and serve the people that have been affected and to honor Christ in all their efforts. Any resources given will be used well.  3. Reach out. If you know someone in the disaster area, check on them.  Find out how you can help them in practical ways.

Later. 1. Keep doing the above, and also consider participating in or supporting a team that assists in the long-term effort of rebuilding and restoration.  We’ll do our best to keep you informed about these opportunities going forward. Remember, help will be needed for years!  2. Don’t stop praying.  We trust God who works through world-changing situations to bring about moments of grace.  Let’s continue to call upon him.

Link to site:

https://pcamna.org/disaster-response/storms/resuce

Direct link to give:

https://www.egsnetwork.com/gift2/?giftid=44CE593586F5494

Link to Facebook site of the team coordinators:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/114355750787/?fref=ts%2F

Grateful

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.  IN CHRIST ALONE” WORDS AND MUSIC BY KEITH GETTY & STUART TOWNEND

 

It’s been a tough week for all of us.  As a pastor, outside of election week, I’m not sure I’ve heard more political discussion and seen more political intensity than I have this week. I’m reluctant to speak when so many other voices fill the room. This is a meditation more than a statement or prophetic word. First, I feel grateful, no, deeply grateful.  Over the complete course of my life, Jesus has been lovingly leading my heart to see my need for grace—that I am a great sinner needing a great savior.  You see, my sin detector works really well for other people, but has never really worked well in exposing my heart.  Jesus has persistently and lovingly held up a spiritual mirror to reveal the depths of my soul. I say lovingly because he reveals that he might apply his love (while the sin I detect in others often provides me the vantage point from which to judge harshly and without mercy). This week Jesus gently revealed my heart showing me that I might not hate people of different ethnic backgrounds, but that I might be tempted to hate the haters and to judge them as beyond the reach of God’s grace. I’m grateful for grace, for the persistent love of Jesus.

Second, Jesus exposed the foundations I’ve built on. The events of the week left me feeling discouraged and afraid for the country. It was more than concern over division and racism. It was a feeling that the foundations were being shaken.  I was left wondering, “What have I built my security on?”  I remember the time when King David’s advisors told him he was in danger and he had better run for his life.  He asked the question: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3) David tells us that at that time he could see God in his temple and on his heavenly throne completely unshaken by what was happening.  This is where our hearts should be, where I want my foundation to rest. Are the events that are unfolding driving me to Jesus, to a deeper trust and dependence on him? I am grateful for a security in Christ more than sufficient for the day.

Finally, do I see the beauty of the gospel and how much our world needs grace? From the beginning of Jesus’ movement of grace, people have been brought together humbled by their sin and equipped with Jesus’ love. There has been nothing like it in the world.  Jewish people and gentiles and people of every nation have found a new identity as children of God and members together of Jesus’ body. He has brought a peace that will never come by shifting the balance of power from one group to another. We do not know the way of peace. This is why Jesus came and what he came to do.

Sharing this grace is a desperate need today. Of course, it always has been, but God has been pushing me to see this more clearly.  This means loving our neighbors and thereby showing them Jesus. It means laying aside the empty and divisive promises of power and taking up the towel to wash feet. It means refusing to join the angry refrain and instead mingling our voices in the beautiful chorus announcing freedom for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and the day of the Lord’s favor.  We have the privilege of doing this in a unique city where division can be dissolved by the love of Jesus! He has made the way for us to love and extend our hands to those most hurting, most feeling outside, and most in need, to show that the Lord does not show favoritism, and that everyone needs grace. Everyone. I’m grateful that Jesus has invited us to share in his mission.

So that is the journey my heart has been on this week. Humility. Dependence. Trusting the loving way of Jesus as the hope for our world.  Lord, teach us how to love one another, how to love our enemies. To do good to those who hurt us. To trust in You. Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day! and…

This weekend in many if not most churches in America there will be the celebration of Mother’s Day. It sounds like a Hallmark holiday, but it arose from a service of thanks and remembrance in a Methodist church in West Virginia back in the early 1900s.  Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother who had cared for wounded on both sides of the American Civil War.  The remembrance was not only about mothers but also about the beauty of sacrificial service. From there quickly the celebration took off and became a national holiday.

Origin of modern Mother’s Day

But, here’s the thing.  This celebration presents a conflict for the church. First, we want to thank God for mothers, those who have been faithful servants of God by raising children, by being God’s ambassadors in the lives of the next generation.  Serving in this way is a high and holy calling, reflecting the love, patience, and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Mothers bear the realities of life, and they need support and care themselves that often is in short supply.  Our church has been blessed by gracious servant-moms that reflect the nurturing love of the Lord. We want to stand with the mothers of our community of faith.  We thank God for them.

Additionally, because the church of Jesus is an extended family, all of our women become surrogate mothers.  Often Sandy and I have remarked at how our children have been loved and encouraged by other women and men in our church.  In a Sunday School class or through friendship or simply through modeling, every woman is called to be a mother and every man a spiritual father.  We thank God that as parents we are not alone in the nurturing of our children, but we have a whole congregation alongside us.

Two moms I love the most: Sandy and my mother…

This past year, not long after Mother’s Day, my mom passed away. As a result, I find that Mother’s Day holds a poignancy this year that it has not in the past.  Yes, I miss her. How she brought out the spirit of adventure in my brothers and me. How she helped anchor my life in Christ and fulfilled her mission to love and nurture me. My response this year is to walk in gratitude and to remember.  Many of us will be doing this this year as we miss our moms.

But, second, I also feel a deep concern over Mother’s Day.  For some of us, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder of an abusive mother or a mother that was not in the picture or not supportive. You may not want to remember your mother.  So, we must always be sensitive and desire that this time not wound anyone but instead bring peace and healing.

Here is an even deeper concern I have. Through God’s grace, I am repeatedly reminded that my identity is in Christ, as a child of the living God.  This means that every aspect of my life, as a husband, a father, a pastor, a friend, a son, and so on has to be seen in the light of who I am. I am not first any of those.  I am God’s child bonded to Jesus.

The danger is that I can find my identity anywhere else, in being a husband and father, or for you being a wife or mother.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not any less grateful for my mother, or for my wife who is also a great mother. It means that your value, your identity, your worth is not derived there. There are women that have remained single that have lost children or are infertile. For them, Mother’s Day may magnify their pain.  Here is the good news: Your value and significance are found in Jesus.  Whether you are a mother or not has absolutely no bearing on your intrinsic value as beloved of God, and found in Jesus.

This is such good news. How many of us have staked our own identity, our own sense of value on how well our children were doing at some given moment? (Or, how well we felt we were doing in our calling, whatever it was?) The results can be devastating if we feel we have failed or if we feel we have succeeded because it is always unhealthy for us to build our identity on anything so unstable. Instead, God wants us to build our lives, whether in mothering or fathering or whatever our calling may be, on the foundation of our identity in him. 

(This is why on Mother’s Day, we’ll be celebrating with all the women of our church! I hope you will join us for worship!)

 

Unveiled Faces and the Power of Community

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

I was addressing Christmas cards for my dad to send out just this week when we came across a stack of pictures of him with my mom. (My mom was promoted to eternal glory on May 30th of this year. After over 60 years of marriage, you can imagine how much he misses her and how lonely he is at times. All of us miss her.) As he looked at the picture of the two of them, I noticed right away that his countenance changed. His face tightened with a bright smile reflecting what he was seeing in her face. Even though her presence was mediated through a photograph, the connection was there. In a sense, she was present. For him, there was recognition and joy.

img_0991I couldn’t help but reflect on how much my mom impacted our lives, how important each person is in shaping us, how we really live in community, all dependent on each other in our belonging and becoming. The people in our lives are more than co-rememberers of the events that take place. They actually form part of the canvas of who we are.

This whole idea of us as individuals really on our own in the world doesn’t quite square with the way life really works, who we actually are. None of us is on our own. We came to be through the union of lives, and we grow in the context of community, of relationships.

Every fiber of our faith leads us toward community. First, there is the community of the Trinity. The Godhead is not a power or force at work in the universe but the divine dance of three persons loving each other and sharing in everything, in person three, but in essence one. Then, there is Jesus who came for us. When he speaks of his body, he speaks of himself in community with those he loves, his brothers and sisters. Finally, there is the Spirit of God who binds us together in community with each other and with the Lord.

And that leads me back to that photograph of my mom and dad. That picture is really a dim expression of what happens when we see each other in person. Then we are not looking at a static thing, but instead, we enjoy the unveiled face of each other where we are changed by what we see and what we share. Yes, for you know, we are changed just by looking into each other’s faces.

This is why we need each other for life. This is how we can change each other for good.